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Reality Check w/ John Tracy: What’s in a name?

By John Tracy 4:57 PM October 27, 2016

The residents of Utqiaġvik have about four more weeks of sunrises until the sun disappears for another winter.

Utqiaġvik is the Inupiat name for Barrow and, as voters recently decided, will be the official name of Alaska’s northernmost village.

The vote was close — passage came by just six votes. Many of those opposed to the name change expressed concern about the expense of changing things like stationary and signage, but others argued it was important to reclaim the name of a place their ancestors had called home 1,500 years before it was discovered by the Western world.

Explorers have always had a habit of naming places that already had names, names that were given by the people who gave explorers food and shelter when they reached new shores.

In the case of Utqiaġvik, the town was named for Sir John Barrow, a 2nd Secretary of the British Admiralty who spent time in China and South Africa, but never got close to Alaska.

It’s somewhat unclear what the word Utqiaġvik means. Some say it means the place where snow owls are hunted or the place of edible roots, a potential reference to the trading of potatoes in the area in the 19th century.

But that hardly matters. The fact that Utqiaġvik is a name bestowed by the people upon themselves and not bestowed on them by outsiders is reason enough for many.

In 1999, the residents of Sheldon Point changed the name of their village to Nunam Iqua, which is Yupik for “the end of the tundra.”

Look at a map of Alaska and you can almost read its history in the names bestowed by explorers and those seeking their fortunes — from the Bering Strait and Cook Inlet, to Fairbanks and Juneau.

I’m not suggesting we erase that history.

I’m saying it’s fitting that the First Alaskans take the opportunity to reclaim their own piece of history, because what’s in a name can mean a lot.

There is a generation of Alaska Natives who still remember being punished for speaking their own language. Today, Native languages are being taught in school in order to preserve them.

So John Barrow becomes a footnote in Alaska history, along with William McKinley, another westerner who left his name in Alaska without ever leaving a footprint.

Besides, Denali and Utqiaġvik just feel right in a place named generations ago by the Aleut people… Alaska.

John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.

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